Agfa beds in at the high end
The Belgian manufacturer is entering a crowded space of high-performance machinery but its ink heritage may allow it to settle in comfortably.
In a wide-format arena positively bursting with high-end capability Agfa has now decided to enter the fray with the addition of two new machines, announced in April at a special event at its Mortsel, Belgium headquarters. But while the company has the right idea when it comes to extending the current scope of wide-format ink-jet, whether or not its duo of engines will cut the mustard might take some time to determine. Anything new being introduced into the saturated sign and display segment has to add something to the mix, must perform reliably and, often, beyond the call of duty. This is particularly important when end users are being encouraged to experiment with new application areas that might take them into vertical markets formerly not associated with digital processes.
Where the printing machine is the device that facilitates actual production, it is the ink that, today, so often carries the ingredients that can differentiate between success and failure. This is an area where Agfa is in the right position to score brownie points as it continues to concentrate on specific application areas that wander off the path of conventional ink-jet. Its concentration in markets of a more industrial nature has relevance to the graphic arts sector, particularly where high-speed critical production is needed on materials outside the scope of standard display media.
Having selected this year's ISA sign expo for the official world-wide launch of the Jeti Tauro and the Jeti Mira, Agfa's decision to introduce both to a European audience was by way of a series of open days, or red carpet events, with potential customers among those invited. From my point of view it was interesting to glean, first-hand, what users believed to be the strong suits of these new entrants and a key response was the need for reliability. That both these printers incorporate Ricoh's MH5420 print-heads, formerly known as the Gen5, went strongly in their favour, confirming a serious alliance between the two companies and endorsing the need for dependability that some feel is lacking in their current engines.
The Mira attracted a high lever of interest from print house inspectors, showing that there is, indeed, demand for a dedicated, productivity-orientated flat-bed. Yes, it has a large footprint that's exacerbated by the design of the moving gantry, but this is only to be expected in a printer that's designed to cater for high speeds. It also has an optional roll feed that can be added later as field upgrade and, as is typical in this type of configuration, it handles rolls of up to 2.05m in width while, for rigid sheets, substrates up to 2.5m are accommodated with a choice of 1.6m or 3.2m table depths. Six colours plus white and/or clear seem to be pretty much the norm these days and this platform offers this ink combination, along with 7pl droplet sizes and six vacuum zones. Also included is a feature that Agfa calls 'print and prepare', where one side of the table can be loaded while the other side is printing. While its draft mode has speeds of a maximum of 206sq m/hr, a more realistic and practical assessment of its rates are suggested in its high quality mode which, in the HS version, is quoted at 35sq m/hr and, thus, providing perfectly respectable throughput for most jobs onto rigid materials.
Agfa's primary differentiator is its heritage and continuity in formulating ink
The second machine to be introduced was the 2.5m Jeti Tauro, a true combination printer that has six colours plus white or optional primer, and boasts speeds of up to 275sq m/hr; this puts it among in contention for the top speed in its class. Its use of 32 Ricoh MH5420 print-heads works in tandem with Agfa's fast curing inks and optimises the use of white or primer. Again, it features 7pl droplet sizes plus the option for gloss and satin modes and is a sturdily constructed engine that should hold appeal as a good alternative for existing engines already available on today's market.
Nonetheless, I was most certainly not alone in questioning why Agfa had chosen only one width option of 2.5m at this time, instead of adding competition to the 3.2m true hybrid space with a rugged production platform. This wide-format segment is monopolised primarily by a single manufacturer and has proven to be a highly popular size world-wide. It delivers the benefit of printing boards continuously across their long side of the media, which makes sense both from throughput and colour accuracy terms.
Each new addition are designed to be driven by Agfa's PDF-based Asanti workflow software, which is based on its established Apogee digital front-end and addresses the needs of JDF compliance. Its GUI simplifies pre-flighting and access to key print options so that last minute alterations can be accommodated easily and, in keeping with the perceived demand for web-to-print, it incorporates the Asanti StoreFront option.
While the machines give potential punters something to look at in terms of real estate, what goes on under the bonnet is of more importance to would-be investors. Agfa's primary differentiator, according to many I spoke to, is its heritage and continuity in formulating ink for a range of applications. As such, new chemistries have been generated that claim to bring high quality, wide-gamut results with lower overall usage, reducing consumption and costs. A proprietary 'thin ink layer technology' is used in the Jeti Tauro and Mira, and new options will be available for the rest of the Jeti and Anapurna families, including the new M3200i RTR White, which was also on display.
It will be interesting to see who follows through on their initial reactions to both the Jeti additions. This should confirm whether or not Agfa has succeeded in its quest to move up market and to challenge the higher end production platforms.